RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Evan, modified 1 Month ago.

Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 9 Join Date: 7/1/18 Recent Posts
Hi all,

I've recently started meditating in a serious way. I've been consuming dharma books and sitting very inconsistently for several years, but I set a goal recently to sit for 2.75 hours/day over 3 or 4 sits. I've done this consistently for a little over 3 weeks now. 

My practice has been almost exclusively concentration-based, using the breath as object. My feeling was that this practice would give me a more measurable/recognisable goal than open awareness/mindfulness/insight practices, and therefore would be a good place to start. I don't expect to experience any altered states or insights before I sit my first retreat, but if I found that I was getting more and more able to follow the breath continuously, I would at least know that I was progressing along some dimension of practice. (and my understanding is that it's common for people to practice concentration practices prior to insight practices). I want to sit a retreat as soon as possible, and presumably my practice will change or broaden after that, but until I do so and have one-on-one teaching, it seemed reasonable to focus on a simple practice like following the breath. (I've applied for the 10-day Goenka retreat, but I'm still on the waiting list, and the earliest possible place will not be until May).

So here's the situation I'm in. I've now done over 60 hours of sitting over a 3 week period, and I don't feel I've made any real improvement in my ability to follow the breath without distraction. It's rare that I count 10 consecutive breaths, and even when I stay with 20-30 breaths, my thoughts don't seem to be reduced in "volume" at all.

Even if this is "normal" and not something to be discouraged by, and even if I have faith in the long-term project of meditation, my question is just this: what would be the best use of my time in this period before ever sitting a retreat? I can't expect to develop the kind of deep concentration available on retreat, fine. But before acquiring the skills gained on retreat, am I even getting any benefit from 2.75 hours per day that I wouldn't equally be getting from 30minutes? Is there any point sitting so long before having received personal instruction? Are there better techniques I could be practicing pre-retreat? And is 3 weeks simply far too short a time to judge my concentration practice?
Tim Farrington, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 2437 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Hi Evan, and welcome back to DhO. I read your post from 2018, and thought it was very cool that you got Daniel's blessing on your concentration beginnings! And you're sticking with your plan, concentration first. Good man.

Even if this is "normal" and not something to be discouraged by,

It is.

and even if I have faith in the long-term project of meditation,

It certainly appears you do!

my question is just this: what would be the best use of my time in this period before ever sitting a retreat?

I honestly think you're doing it. It's an extraordinary wave of fresh motivation you're riding right now: that you were moved to start sitting 2.75 hours a day, and have stuck to that, is not something to let go of easily. If you had just started learning to play the piano, it would be obvious to you that you're going to get better, the more practice time you put in (barring pushing yourself too hard, from wrong ambition, and getting a backlash). What is learnable about meditation, as in any sophisticated and complex human skill, takes time and practice (and what is not learnable sneaks in beautifully while we are putting in that time and practice). 

I can't expect to develop the kind of deep concentration available on retreat, fine. But before acquiring the skills gained on retreat, am I even getting any benefit from 2.75 hours per day that I wouldn't equally be getting from 30minutes? Is there any point sitting so long before having received personal instruction?

Again, on the music analogy, even assuming that your breath meditation right now is the rough equivalent of playing scales on a piano, hell yes it's worth the time you're putting in. People have been running off into the forest for millennia with nothing more substantial to start with than a breath practice. I started with breath myself, and it's still at the heart of my practice. 

Are there better techniques I could be practicing pre-retreat?

I would be very hesitant to suggest a switch of horses at this point. On the other hand, your counting technique may be lending itself to a false measuring mindset, a way of "keeping score," like, "How many breaths before I lose the thread of counting? What is my breath-to-thought ratio, at my current breath count?" The real key to the breath is that every breath is new. You want to see that in-breath arise on its own, and feel the wave of it ripple, and watch the out-breath go on its own, right out into zero. It's not quantitative, it's one breath at a time. The counting, the numbers, are really just beats, they are more like the beads on a mala or rosary, one bead per breath. You're using the count-bead to send yourself back to attention to the next breath, and it's new every round of breath, like a radar screen getting wiped clean after every rotation. It's never more than one breath, and if the counting makes it hard for you to remember that, or easy to fall into trying for "bigger numbers," then you might want to just go to 1-2, 1 on the in-breath, 2 on the outbreath.

And is 3 weeks simply far too short a time to judge my concentration practice?

Yes, amigo. Three weeks is what is known in technical meditation terms as a damned good start. Keep that good start's  momentum now, and you'll be playing concertos in due time. You're doing great.
Evan, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 9 Join Date: 7/1/18 Recent Posts
Hi Tim, thanks for your reply and all the advice. 

I was also pleasantly surprised to get a reply from Daniel. As you can see from the gap between my posts, that earlier wave of practice fizzled out, but as you said, I'm riding a new wave now and it feels more valuable and sustainable than it has in the past. Of course, getting feedback from other practitioners also helps, so thanks again. I'll take your words to heart. I'm still experimenting with counting and how it affects my concentration, and I like your radar screen analogy! 
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Chris Marti, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 3862 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
Even if this is "normal" and not something to be discouraged by, and even if I have faith in the long-term project of meditation, my question is just this: what would be the best use of my time in this period before ever sitting a retreat? I can't expect to develop the kind of deep concentration available on retreat, fine. But before acquiring the skills gained on retreat, am I even getting any benefit from 2.75 hours per day that I wouldn't equally be getting from 30minutes? Is there any point sitting so long before having received personal instruction? Are there better techniques I could be practicing pre-retreat? And is 3 weeks simply far too short a time to judge my concentration practice?

I'm going to hazard a guess that you are being too hard on yourself and that your sits tend to be made up of trying to concentrate, then trying harder, then trying even harder, then getting de-motivated by your lack of concentration.

Amirite?
Evan, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 9 Join Date: 7/1/18 Recent Posts
Actually not so much. That has been the case in the past, and I'm alert to the need to not be too hard on myself. But it's probably true that I'm trying too much to concentrate on the breath, rather than just being aware of it as it arises, so maybe I am unconsciously still demanding too much from myself.

​​​​​​​Thanks for the reply, Chris.
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Pepe, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 329 Join Date: 9/26/18 Recent Posts
I think you could spend three hours per day way more efficiently doing any kind of vipassana, or at least some vipassana that supports your breath practice. Instead of keeping the focus on the nostrils (if that's what you are practicing, I assume), you could observe body sensations on the skull for the first breath cycle, around the nose and cheeks for the second,  the chest for the third, the belly for the fourth, the groin/sacrum area for the fifth (or instead try a whole-body focus). In two whole rounds you reach your 10 breath goal. Keeping your practice interesting is part of the job. 
Evan, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 9 Join Date: 7/1/18 Recent Posts
Hi Pepe, thanks for your response. I like your advice - I'm going to start trying some different techniques to supplement the samatha meditation, and see what works best at this stage.
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Pepe, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 329 Join Date: 9/26/18 Recent Posts
Great! Also check some pointers given by Shargrol, a seasoned meditator who posts frequently in DhO:

Shargrol's posts compilation

- Centering instead of Concentration
- Insight into what Jhanas actually are
- Forcing attention
- A gentler approach
- Awareness and counting of breath
- Lack of Concentration vs Aversion
- A blend of Concentration and Vipassana
- Concentration and Vipassana aren’t so different

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Evan, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 9 Join Date: 7/1/18 Recent Posts
Thanks, I'll check those out! 
shargrol, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 1529 Join Date: 2/8/16 Recent Posts
It's very important to understand what you are training when doing breath counting. The goal isn't to be without thoughts, nor is it to count without being distracted. 

The goal of breath meditation is to get very very good at noticing what distracts us and how distraction is created. An ideal sit would be getting distracted 1000 times and realizing it 1000 times. You would be learning how to come back from distraction, learning how to "wake up".

As soon as you notice a distraction, you are already back into presence, great job! No need for frustration or feeling like "i'm not practicing well". After a distraction, it's important to notice what it was that sent you into trance. A thought? A worry? An emotion? What pulled you out of presence? Use this as an opportunity to learn about all the habits and behaviors that seem to be running in the background of your mind. This is where we learn about our mind.

Then find the sensations of breathing again and restart. Simple.

Meditation isn't just a simple matter of sitting and doing a stupid exercise which magically fixes everything. Meditation is an opportunity for really studying the mind, how attention works, how broad awareness works, how reactive patterns work, how the mind moves from presence into trance and comes back again.

If meditation is over simplified, (e.g. thoughts are bad, must not be distracted), then it turns into a battle between your mind and your mind, which is futile. If meditation is a complex exploration, then it is interesting and we actually grow and develop and the mind becomes more sensitive and precise. 

Meditation is about finding a continuous balance between extremes. It's not about crushing one aspect of mind with another aspect of mind.  

My best advice is to get very used to being able to gently meditate. This gentle approach is what you need to survive a retreat. Get used to letting the mind be the mind. Get used to allowing the mind to be the mind. And notice that when you let the mind do it's thing, you learn a lot about your mind. A meditation technique is just something that keeps you on track, it gives you something to do, as you are noticing things about your mind. But you never need to be perfect at doing the technique.
Evan, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 9 Join Date: 7/1/18 Recent Posts
Hi Shargrol, thanks for the advice. I think I can assimilate most of what you said, but I have one question. When you talk about the goal of breath meditation, it doesn't match very well with my understanding of shamatha meditation, which I understand as aiming at undistracted attention on the meditation object, and which was at least my current initial goal. You seem to be describing an increased metacognitive awareness, which seems like it would assist concentration, but is not itself the same as being highly concentrated. Would you draw the distinctions the same way? Or am I misunderstanding you?
George S, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Best practices and motivation if never sat retreat

Posts: 1505 Join Date: 2/26/19 Recent Posts
I'm a big fan of home practice - it's a veritable goldmine of dukkha emoticon

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